Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 21, 2004. The County Fair - Arlington, Virginia.

I timed my passage through Arlington to coincide with the county fair, an annual event that is part crafts sale, part carnival, part rural state fair wannabe, part music and dance festival, and part community schmooze-fest. My introduction to the county fair when I moved to Virginia was as an entrant in the quilting competitions. Like a proper rural fair, Arlingtonians can show off their handiworks of all sorts in competition – not only quilts and other sewing, but photographs, sculptures, paintings, cakes, vegetables grown in small suburban gardens, flowers, herbs. In the past the cakes have been a wonder to look at, decorated along that year’s fair theme – this year it was “where history comes alive.” But the cakes were wrapped in plastic and almost invisible. Why? Are they afraid passers-by will snatch a bit of cake that has been gathering dust on the unrefrigerated tables in the gym where the fair is held? I’ll admit that after a lunch of the carnival food outside I was a bit tempted by the prim cherry tomatoes neatly arrayed on their paper plates along the tables. The competition classes are very detailed – “zucchini ages 3-6,” “landscape photographs ages 7-12,” “quilts, machine-sewn, adults,” “wall-hangings, hand-sewn, teenagers.” The ribbons are even more detailed, with seven levels, including three above first prize. So everyone has a good chance of winning something. My quilts, over the years, took a couple of seconds and one first, so I guess they weren’t really very good.

The county government takes a dozen or so booths at the fair, to educate the citizenry about police, environment, schools, transportation planning, voter registration, how to find your home in the county’s web-based GIS, when to pay your taxes. The sheriff’s booth was a big hit, with a larger-than-life inflatable sheriff wandering through the fair shaking hands and waving, led by someone in more conventional gear making sure the giant didn’t trip on small children. The fire department was a hit as well, handing out glowing red fire fighter helmets. One year the environment department had a splendid topographic model showing how rain that fell in one part of the landscape coursed down the streets, through the sewers, and into the streams and the river. It was delightfully graphic - you could pour your coke into it to see how your pollution made it to the Chesapeake Bay. This year the award for the best hand-out surely went to the county information technology department, which was giving away LED-lit American flag pins whose red and blue lights blinked on and off like Christmas decorations in the night. I’m no flag-waver, but even I sported one of those, waving brightly above my Kerry-Edwards sticker.

Civic groups of all sorts have booths at the fair. Their placement is an annual nightmare for fair organizers. One year they mixed it up and put Virginia Right-To-Life next to the National Abortion Rights Action League. This year they did better than that, though they did get the Arlington Republicans next to a pro-choice group. The religious groups are better – interfaith spirit in Arlington is strong enough that it’s okay if the Baha’i booth is opposite Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Congregation and next to the Catholics. The booths dream up all kinds of tricks to draw people in. The League of Women Voters handed out fortune cookies, whose fortunes all read “you will vote in the election in November.” The society encouraging the teaching of Latin had a big poster asking us to name the five modern languages that derive from Latin (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese). Several booths had wall-sized county maps to mark our houses with pins. A few handed out candy – mints were okay, but the ones with chocolate did much better. The hospital handed out packs of bandaids, lots of people handed out pencils and magnets.

Helium balloons were big too. Children were indiscriminate in their acceptance of balloons, but I was dismayed that the Arlington Democrats weren’t keeping up with the balloon output of the Bush-Cheney folks. So I invited myself behind the Democrats table to use my skills with a helium tank, and tried to show the other folks at the table how to knot the balloons quickly so we could get ours out on the floor faster than the other side. For an hour I made helium whiz into blue and white balloons advertising Kerry-Edwards, Jim Moran (Congress) and Libby Garvey (school board). It’s a silly sort of game, but there’s an illusion that if we can only get more balloons out there than the other guys, then our candidate will win the election as well.

At the county fair they sell jewelry. Gold, silver, semi-precious stones, elaborate hand crafted earrings and necklaces, cheap beaded earrings thrown together by the dozen, art glass that sparkles and shifts color as the light changes, antique jewelry, children’s jewelry, pins made from postage stamps, pins depicting decorated townhouses on city streets sold to raise money for the homeless, wedding rings, birthstone rings, toe rings, wooden beads, necklaces and bracelets from Africa, silver beads, necklaces and bracelets from Asia. Every year I buy something from the jewelers. One year it was elegant glass pendants for me and my sister, another it was a simple gold and topaz ring. This year it was a cheap pair of bead earrings and a small silver toe ring, both of which I have been wearing ever since.

They sell clothes, too, but only ethnic ones and crafty ones. Colorful hand-knitted sweaters from someplace in South America. Tie-dyed t-shirts in every hue, made by a couple who come to the fair every year. Soft cashmere scarves from Nepal in a rainbow of colors. Hand sewn patchwork vests, hand-painted silk scarves. Then there’s the woman who sells stuffed frogs and lizards in a glittering array of fabrics, the Cambodians selling embroidered pillow covers, the Chinese woman selling small bonsai plants, the man and his wife who sell cheap watches and pins and leather fanny packs made in China.

Outside of the gym, in what serves as a soccer field and running track most of the year, the county fair is really a carnival. A company from central Virginia sends in the rides folded on the backs of trucks, and they are unpacked in the soccer field the day before to turn into a glittering display of whirling lights by the night the fair opens. Most are for little children – go-carts shaped like whales circling around, a tall slide, a merry-go-round with parents clutching toddlers so they don’t fall off, and of course a ferris wheel. A few rides attract older kids, ones that leave you hanging upside down at the top of a spinning wheel and the like.

I am entranced by these carnivals. They are the excitement of the city lights at night taken to its extreme, lights and action with no purpose beyond their glitter and motion. Like the lights of Alexandria coming on across the harbor in the evening, but more so, with color and spin and excitement and an element of total fantasy. They are also somehow tawdry – cheap thrills offered by disconnected people wandering from town to town, setting up their machines or their games of chance and skill, selling their excitement for a dollar or two, offering garish prizes to those who win, then packing it up and leaving to move on to the next place. But they are also beautiful, like fireworks or sparkling jewels. It fascinates me.

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Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.